He has been called “the Father of Rhythm & Blues” and “the Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
In the Forties, bandleader Louis Jordan pioneered a wild - and wildly popular - amalgam of jazz and blues. The swinging shuffle rhythms played by singer/saxophonist Jordan and his Tympany Five got called “jump blues” or “jumpin’ jive,” and it served as a forerunner of rhythm & blues and rock and roll.
In fact, it has been plausibly argued that “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” is worthy of consideration as the first rock and roll record, containing many of the genre’s key ingredients: a distorted electric guitar, an early use of the word rocking, party-themed lyrics, and danceable, uptempo music. Similarly, with their breathless, manic spoken delivery, both “Look Out” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” - released in 1947 and 1949, respectively - can be seen as early examples of what would come to be known as rap.
Jordan was born into a musical family. His father taught music and was bandleader for the Arkansas-based Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After majoring in music at Arkansas Baptist College, Jordan moved with his family to Philadelphia and then headed to New York by himself. He served stints as a saxophonist with jazz bands and swing orchestras led by Chick Webb and others. He broke off in 1938 to form his own group whose specialty was jump blues delivered with madcap wit and a danceable beat. During the Forties, Jordan ruled the R&B charts like no other performer.
Jordan’s appeal stemmed from his songs’ lively evocation of good times, performed in a swinging style that ranged from hot jazz to bluesy boogie. Jordan supplied a good deal of the slang of early rock and roll and directly influenced the freewheeling spirit of the music. In retrospect, Jordan’s used of syncopated shuffle rhythms in a small-combo context can be viewed as the bridge between big-band swing and rhythm & blues (and, by extension, rock and roll). His incorporation of electric guitar and organ proved a major stepping-stone from jazz to R&B, as well.
Jordan’s peers and contemporaries included Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. He would come to have a huge influence on Decca Records labelmate Bill Haley. Ray Charles was another professed acolyte who acknowledged his debt by signing Jordan to his Tangerine label in the early Sixties. Other rock and roll figureheads whom Jordan profoundly influenced were Little Richard (who adopted “Keep a-Knockin’” from Jordan’s repertoire), Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris. No less a rock and roll pioneer than Chuck Berry paid tribute to Jordan with this simple declaration: “I identify myself with Louis Jordan more than any other artist.”
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five launched 57 singles onto the R&B charts in the Forties, including 18 songs that went to Number One. Their most popular numbers included “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” (#1, 18 weeks), “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” (#1, 17 weeks), “Boogie Woogie Blue Plate” (#1, 14 weeks), “Saturday Night Fish Fry” (#1, 12 weeks), “Buzz Me” (#1, 9 weeks), “Caldonia” (#1, 7 weeks), “Jack, You’re Dead” (#1, 7 weeks), “Blue Light Boogie” (#1, 7 weeks) and “G.I. Jive” (#1, 6 weeks), From 1943 to 1950, Jordan occupied the top position for a total of 113 weeks - more than one-fourth of the time! For good reason he was dubbed “King of the Juke Boxes.” His peak year was 1946, when seventeen of his songs made the upper reaches of the R&B chart. His popularity led to starring roles in a series of musical film shorts from the late Forties, including Caledonia, Look Out Sister, and Reet, Petite and Gone.
Jordan’s last hit came in 1951, when “Weak Minded Blues” hit the Top Five. Thereafter, the rock and roll revolution for which he helped lay the groundwork essentially precipitated his decline as a popular artist. His tenure at Decca ended in 1954, after which point he recorded for various labels, including Aladdin and Mercury, without replicating his earlier success (although he still was able to find steady work as a performer). A session for Mercury Records, produced by Quincy Jones, yielded Jordan’s hottest album of the Fifties,Somebody Up There Digs Me! (1956), and he followed it a year later with a top-flight jazz recording, Man, We’re Wailin’!. He remained a revered figure in Europe, but for the most part, the times had passed him by. He would later profess some bitterness about the career setback that rock and roll had dealt him. Jordan recorded for the last time in 1972 and died in February 1975 of a heart attack.
A Louis Jordan revival occurred in 1992 when the musical Five Guys Named Moe, based on his life and music, became a Broadway smash.
Louis Jordan (vocals, saxophone; born July 8, 1908, died February 4, 1975)